THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

prague-disintegration.jpg

[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.

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8 comments

  1. I am not a big book reader by nature but each year I aim to tackle a couple of the larger works I own. This is one I have earmarked for this year. My drawback all along has not been lack of strong desire to read it but the fact that it has a font the size of mouse droppings! Your review is another push toward getting it off the shelf, sooner rather than later.

    For what it’s worth, the risk that you might end up longing for home is not a sufficient reason not to leave if that is what calls you. Its like not wanting to risk loving because you might get hurt. Sometimes I wonder if the only thing that is certain in this life is regret (death and taxes aside).

    1. I love ‘big’ books, they make me really happy; there is something satisfying about them, about the sprawl. I want to reread The Tale of Genji and Llosa’s War of the End of the World this year, but unfortunately I don’t have as much time as I used to, and I don’t like the idea of reading them over many months, rather than 10 days. I hope you do give this a go, it is a lovely book.

      Oh no, I don’t think I would long for home. I am thoroughly sick of this country. But the fact that I am sick of it is what makes the inevitable rose-tinted view of it, once I had been out of it for a while, interesting to me, just as Danny’s is re: a place where there was so much ‘horror.’

  2. Great review – added to my list of need-to-reads. I think we all have an unreasoning attachment to wherever we sprang from, and that won’t go away. I left Scotland when I was 6 but I still feel an attachment and have a yearning for the place on a regular basis – a kind of equivalent of the Welsh ‘hiraeth’. Prague does sound lovely though…

    1. Thanks K. I wasn’t aware of any attachment to my home city until I left; although I guess that is normal. But then I came back and hate it again. I wrote in my Moon and Bonfires review that there can form this odd nostalgia for even unpleasant things, and I think that is true. Danny feels it too, for Czechoslovakia is a place where he suffered, and yet he spends most of his time there in his memories.

  3. What a lovely review. [Also that image of the memorial is truly wrenching art.]

    I’ve moved often, am therefore familiar with the logic of nostalgia you describe. The old country is just the last country, dream-haunter, daydream-sweetener. Someday I’d like to try moving back to someplace, just to see if enrichments of memory enhanced a new immediacy.

    1. Cheers, Robert. Yeah the memorial is a striking thing. There is loads of art of that calibre scattered around Prague. When I moved away from the north of England I found that my accent became stronger, that I started to identify with Yorkshire more than I had ever done while I was here. Coincidentally, I reviewed The Moon and the Bonfires recently and that is exactly about that kind of situation: going back to a place you left, trying to recover something of yourself, and finding that it is not, and could never be, possible. The place that exists in your memories exists only there, nowhere else. It has, in my opinion, never actually existed in reality.

  4. Josef Skvorecky was my “favourite living writer” until his death … the story in *The Engineer of Human Souls* actually begins in *The Cowards* and continues in the story collection *The Swell Season* … then others … the character “Danny” has a longer tale to tell than just the chapter in this fine novel … when I first read *The Engineer of Human Souls* I found myself not wanting it to end … cheers! DaP

    1. Yeah I was aware of the link to some of his other work. I love this one, but I get the impression that there isn’t a great deal of variety in his books, so I haven’t tackled any others, thinking they would be simply lesser versions of Souls.

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